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Ernst: Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale 1924; Carrington: Portrait of Max Ernst 1939


‘The Charm of the Birdman’

Leonora Carrington fell for Max Ernst even before meeting the charming chap in London. She had seen his work “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale” and loved its maker immediately. She could relate to it exactly and understood it intuitively. It is a type of combine before the time of Rauschenberg, (who invented the term to describe some of his works). Both a painting and a sculpture (pieces of wood are attached to form a gate, a shed and a door knob) it could also be termed a piece of furniture. It was inspired by a dream Ernst had while suffering from fever associated with measles. As Ernst recalled: “the dream was provoked by an imitation-mahogany panel opposite my bed, the grooves of the wood taking successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.” Born from dream and hallucination, it is a typical Surrealist collage. A poem Ernst penned shortly before making this work begins, “At nightfall, at the outskirts of the village, two children are threatened by a nightingale.”

The work is practically indecipherable and is meant to be. There appears to be three children rather than two – one running off centre left with a knife, one swooning on the ground and the other in the arms of a man on a shed (bird house?) roof. Like ‘Inn of the Dawn Horse’  it is full of drama, mystery and theatricality.  ‘Why is the Nightingale a menace’ one may ask? Normally thought of as a harmless creature with a beautiful voice, here it metamorphoses into a murderous threat. The disconnect throws us, and takes us out of the rational in truly Surrealist style.

Ernst did have a ‘bird connection’. He had developed an alter-ego on the death of his beloved pet cockatoo (which died the same time as his sister was born). This higher self otherwise known as ‘Loplop’ was the subject of several paintings and also of stories written by Carrington. In a 1939 portrait by her, he is wearing a cloak of feathers, presumably referencing his bird self. Like a magician, he carries a horse captured in a glass lantern, whilst a second horse is frozen in the background. The horse is representative of Leonora’s alter ego. He has her captured under his spell – but will he release her? In the end he had no choice, as later that year she left him.